How Did Education Embarrassment Betsy DeVos Come to Power?

The following is an excerpt from Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America by John Nichols. Copyright © 2017. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., as well as from Amazon and Indiebound

Like many of Trump’s nominees and appointees, formal counselors and casual consiglieres, Betsy DeVos was an unknown entity to the vast majority of Americans when she was tapped for a cabinet post. Upon her nomination in November of 2016, a statement from the Trump transition team had the president-elect hailing the billionaire philanthropist as a “brilliant and passionate education advocate” who “will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.” But that was just press-release happy talk from an administration that would soon affirm its determination to communicate “alternative facts.” The truth is that Trump was so unfamiliar with his nominee to run an agency with a $70 billion budget, more than four thousand employees and responsibility for serving 50 million students in 16,900 school districts nationwide, along with 13 million post-secondary students, that, when he signed the paperwork nominating her for the cabinet post, the president looked around quizzically and asked: “Ah, Betsy. Education, right?” As it turns out, the only Trump administration insider who was more confused than the president about Betsy DeVos was Betsy DeVos.

In January 2017, at a hearing organized by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, DeVos was supposed to make the case for her confirmation. Instead, she exposed herself. No, she did not have an education degree. No, she had never taught in a public school and nor had she administered one. No, she had not served on an elected school board. No, she had not sent her children to public schools. No, she had never applied for a student loan and nor had her children. But, yes, she did think that guns might have a place in public schools as a defense against grizzly bears. Asked about the basic measures of educational attainment, she struggled to distinguish between growth and proficiency in an exchange with Al Franken so agonizing that the senator from Minnesota felt it was necessary to speak very slowly and deliberately as he explained to the nominee for secretary of education that “this is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years.” Toward the end of the many agonizing hours of questioning and attempts at answering on that January day, New Hampshire senator Maggie Hassan, the mother of a child with cerebral palsy, asked DeVos about programs and protections for students with disabilities.

DeVos, the nation’s most urgent advocate of private-school voucher programs that educators and parents have identified as a particular threat to the educational prospects of children with disabilities, assured the senator that “I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.” Yet, the nominee seemed to be unfamiliar with “the policies surrounding that” in general, and, more particularly, with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“That’s a federal civil rights law,” Hassan explained to the flailing nominee. “So do you stand by your statement a few minutes ago that it should be up to the states whether to follow it?”

Grasping desperately for the most reassuring of the talking points she had been provided, DeVos replied: “Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.”

Hassan's eyebrows rose. “So were you unaware, when I just asked you about the IDEA, that it was a federal law?” the senator asked. “I may have confused it,” replied DeVos.

Americans who worry about maintaining the promise of public education for all students may at that point have been confused about how Betsy DeVos ended up in so embarrassing a circumstance, and about why anyone would think she was prepared to oversee education in America. Yes, DeVos had spent many decades and many dollars on campaigns to privatize and voucherize public education. But, as her Senate testimony revealed so glaringly and so egregiously, DeVos had not bothered, in all those years of self-promotional politicking, to familiarize herself with the essentials of the education system she proposed to “reform.” How could someone who American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten dismissed as a partisan automaton with “no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools” position herself to become “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education”?

The answer to that question came in the form of a question.

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who for years had warned of the danger that America was veering toward “of the rich, by the rich, for the rich” plutocracy, grilled DeVos on a host of issues, from school privatization to college costs. But he opened the discussion with an inquiry that resolved the mystery of DeVos’s presence before the committee.

“Ms. DeVos,” the senator began, “there is a growing fear in this country that we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic form of society, where a small number of very wealthy billionaires control our economic and political life. Would you be so kind as to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?”

Resorting to the canned talking points that most of Trump’s nominees used to avoid meaningful exchanges, DeVos responded: “Senator, first of all, thank you for that question. I was pleased to meet you in your office last week.” Then she tried to dodge the question by saying: “I wish I could give you that number.”

Sanders was having none of it. “I have heard the number was $200 million. Does that sound in the ballpark?”

DeVos gulped. “Collectively over my entire family,” the billionaire campaign donor replied, “that is possible.”

“My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude, but,” Sanders inquired, “do you think that if your family had not made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party that you would be sitting here today?”

A sheepish DeVos replied that “I do think there would be that possibility.” But she could not muster energy for an argument that even she knew was comic. No one, not even Betsy DeVos, could have imagined, not for a minute, not even by the most remote possibility, that Betsy DeVos would be anywhere near a Senate hearing room, let alone the cabinet table, if she had not bought her way into the room.

That fact should have disqualified DeVos, as similar details should have disqualified the new president’s nominees for the secretary of the treasury position once held by Alexander Hamilton, for the secretary of labor position once held by Frances Perkins, for the position of ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James that was held in the last century by the likes of Averell Harriman and Joseph Kennedy (and in preceding centuries, and with the designation as “minister” or “envoy,” by future presidents John Adams, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan). Unfortunately, neither DeVos nor her patrons were possessed of the sense of duty, or shame, necessary to derail the moneyed mandarins who were grasping for levers of power in the Trump interregnum. Sinecure after sinecure, position after position, was handed to this billionaire or that multimillionaire; those with fat wallets and fast pens were, again and again, assigned the power to define American policy by the man who had throughout his 2016 campaign dismissed recipients of big-money largesse as “puppets.” In the first six weeks after his election, according to Politico, campaign donors accounted for “39 percent of the 119 people Trump reportedly considered for high-level government posts, and 38 percent of those he eventually picked.” Trevor Potter, a lawyer who once advised Republican presidential nominee John McCain, suggested that Trump’s penchant for picking major campaign donors for positions of major responsibility set up a disillusioning circumstance for “voters who voted for change and are going to end up with a plutocracy.”

Unfortunately, aside from Bernie Sanders, members of the U.S. Senate often have trouble getting exercised about plutocracy. So it was that, on January 21, 2017, the Education Committee voted 12–11 to send the DeVos nomination to a full Senate where members of the Republican majority were prepared to rubberstamp another Trump nominee. There was no real system of checks and balances when it came to this president’s picks, even when they were so manifestly inept and monumentally conflicted as Betsy DeVos. Despite the fact that many Republican senators positioned themselves as #NeverTrump men and women of principle during the bitter 2016 presidential race, those same senators fell in line behind nominees who had often donated not just to the Trump campaign but to the Republican Party that claimed their loyalty.

This is the nightmare scenario that James Madison feared when he envisioned the abandonment of the duties that extend from the swearing of an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” by “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison, the designer of the drafting project that yielded the Constitution and an essential author of the Bill of Rights, was the most uneasy of the founders. Strikingly conscious of his own failings and those of his contemporaries, the man who would serve as the fifth secretary of state and fourth president of the new United States warned that “the essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” He concerned himself with the dangers of militarism, observing that “of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” He worried about propaganda and how “all the means of seducing the minds” might be “added to those of subduing the force, of the people.” He saw the threat of an imperial presidency, under which “the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied.” Madison fretted about the “unequal distribution of property,” about the mingling of religion and government to establish a state church (“in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people”) and, as a Virginia plantation owner, about the original sin of the American experiment (admitting, albeit too quietly and too late, that slavery was “the great evil under which the nation labors”).

No member of the founding circle understood the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the American experiment so well as Madison. It was for that reason that he advocated so ardently for a system of checks and balances that might serve as the “great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers.” Today, Madison’s fear of factions is often seen as the overly idealistic affectation of a man from another time; as the resistance of a romantic to the inevitable development of American variations on the British Tories and Whigs. But Madison was no romantic and nor was he a rigid nonpartisan; in fact, he was the essential lieutenant to Thomas Jefferson in his fellow Virginian’s wrangling with Alexander Hamilton and in Jefferson’s 1800 challenge to John Adams. Madison was a realist. He accepted the prospect of parties. But he was terrified by the prospect of excesses of partisanship as they might manifest themselves in a distant time when “the accumulation of all powers, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Donald Trump is one man. A powerful man, to be sure, but still one man. He can only govern with the collaboration of other men and women, like Betsy DeVos. And, in the American system, he could not have established that collaboration at its highest and meaningful level without the acquiescence of Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, they did acquiesce. Even after they had watched Betsy DeVos melt down, and in full knowledge of the fact that her only “qualification” was her wealth, a sufficient number of Republicans (with an assist from Vice President Mike Pence) decided to give the woman who “may have confused it” control over education policy and practice in the United States.

Something is broken in America. The structures that were meant to protect and preserve the republic have been undermined. The American experiment has been rendered vulnerable by the excesses of partisanship that manifest themselves not just in Trumpism but in the acquiescence to Trumpism by congressional charlatans who have traded away their consciences in order to align themselves with an unconscionable president who, in the words of the Economist during the 2016 campaign, “has prospered by inciting hatred and violence.” The magazine described Trump as a man “so unpredictable that the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying.” Most Americans agreed. Fifty-four percent of them voted for someone other than Donald Trump for the presidency. But an archaic system that allows the loser of the popular vote to be the winner of the Electoral College allowed the terrifying prospect of a Trump presidency to be realized.

To avert the greater terror that might extend from this presidency, Americans must move from the lesser fear of a man to a greater understanding of an administration where the high stations of influence are occupied not just by a Donald Trump and a Mike Pence, but by a Steve Bannon and a Jeff Sessions, by a Rex Tillerson and a Betsy DeVos. Fear can weaken people or strengthen their resolve, it can overwhelm or it can provide clarity, it can define us or define our determination to take our country back.

There is malice to be found in any survey of Trumpism. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have confirmed and condemned the threats that have arisen since Donald Trump assumed the presidency. But if history is our guide and guardian, then we know that exposing the malice, and examining how prominent (and not so prominent) members of this administration manifest it, is the key to averting catastrophe and restoring that measure of sanity that might steer the ship of state back toward a true course. Trump and the mandarins who conspire to do his bidding have seized the levers of power. But they have not pulled their grip tight enough to strangle America’s promise. If it is our purpose to dislodge them before too much damage is done, then our answer to them is found, as FDR suggested, “in the possession of the plain facts of our present condition.” If we separate ourselves from the frenzy of the moment, we are reminded, again and again, that this is the hardwired reality of the American experiment, this is the truth that extends across our history. Roosevelt recognized that there were American moments when “we are not rid of these dangers but we can summon our intelligence to meet them.”

This is such a moment. Our charge, as in the past, is to arm ourselves with the simple facts of the Trump presidency. To use these facts to address the malice domestic. To avert the Trumpocalypse.

Excerpted from Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America by John Nichols. Copyright © 2017. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., as well as from Amazon and Indiebound.



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